For the last two weeks we’ve taken a break from our usual people of the Bible study, but today we’re going to dive back into. Before we do, a brief recap.
You guys will remember that originally Israel wasn’t a nation at all, just a group of loose tribes associated with each other by a common religion. Does anyone remember how many tribes of Israel there were? [Let them answer.]
Twelve. The tribes of Israel were: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Napthtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim, Manassah, and Benjamin. That’s actually 13 tribes, if anyone is counting, which is for two reasons. The first is that you may recall that the names of the tribes come from the names of Jacob’s son. Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, who stole his brother’s blessing, ran away, and then had all the wife and kids drama. One of Jacob’s son was Joseph, who the other brother’s sold into slavery. You’ll notice there is no tribe of Joseph. And that’s because Joseph’s legacy ended up being so great, that instead of having one tribe, he has two! Ephraim and Manassah were Joseph’s sons. So those two together are really sort of a tribe of Joseph.
The second reason why there are 13 often listed is because the tribe of Levi was unique. Levi was the tribe of Moses and Aaron, and therefore the tribe of the priests. As such the tribe of Levi didn’t have any region of land that is was responsible for or ruled. Levites could be found in every tribe, serving every tribe. So if we’re naming *landed* tribes we would name all of the tribes except Levi. If we’re naming the tribes as the sons of Israel, we’d consider Levi but combine Manassah and Ephraim. It’s a little confusing, and when the Bible considers which to be tribes really depends on what the author of the particular book is talking about.
The key here is to remember that there are distinct tribes within the people of Israel. That they are not just one cohesive unit, and that during this ancient period, which tribe you belonged to mattered. That doesn’t matter as much anymore. Most modern Jewish people don’t really care what tribe other people are of. They’re more likely to care about whether you follow Orthodox, Conservative, or Reformed Judaism.
But that is a little off topic. We have twelve ish tribes that once upon a time were not united into a kingdom. Then you’ll remember the people asked for a king so they could be like every other nation, and God granted them a king—Saul who was of the tribe of Benjamin. And Saul was a good king…for a while. And then he started going a little crazy—the power went to his head and he went against God. This caused God to pick a new king—David, who was of the tribe of Judah.
King David is like the King Arthur of the Bible. His reign is remembered as this glorious time period marred by a few super critical character flaws—mainly his abuse of power in the Bathsheba/Urriah situation and this his inability to handle his own children which led to more murder, rape, and civil unrest.
But under David, Israel was united as one kingdom, and its borders were secured against the people who wanted to invade it and take their land, namely the Philistines.
Then after David, the son of David and Bathsheba became king, Solomon. Solomon’s reign is the true golden age of Israel. David already fought all the battles to secure Israel as a nation and secure its borders, so Solomon doesn’t really have to worry about any invader type threats during his time. Therefore he’s able to turn his attention to inside of Israel. He builds himself a glorious palace but more importantly he builds the Temple—which is the primary place of worship for all of Israel and represents God’s home on earth. This is a huge deal, because up to this point the people have been using the Tabernacle, which was basically a tent version of the Temple.
Solomon spares no expense on Temple. It’s full of gold and silver, the fanciest woods, all put together by the best of the best artisans.
Solomon himself also becomes quite renowned for being wise, and becomes so famous for his wisdom that people come from far off nations to hear it.
But this golden age doesn’t last. In his old age, Solomon turns to foreign gods, breaking the first commandment. As punishment, God decides he will break up Israel into two nations: the Northern Nation of Israel and the Southern Nation of Judah. Though out of respect for David, he waits until Solomon’s dead for this to happen.
Ten tribes go to the North Nation of Israel, ruled by non-Davidic kings. While Solomon’s son is left with two tribes: Judah—David’s own tribe—and Benjamin, which coincidentally is Saul’s tribe. This is the division of the landed tribes. Levi would be split among the two nations, but most of them would probably reside in the Southern nation of Judah, since Judah has Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is where the Temple is. Only Levitical priests can serve in the Temple, and only descendents of Aaron can be high priest.
There will never be a united Israel with all ten tribes ever again.
The split happens around approximately 930 BC. After that Israel and Judah stay split with their own kings who constantly squabble and battle with each other. Some kings follow God and some don’t. Some kings battle each other and some battle outsiders. But there is basically no peace. Just constant fighting either with each other or foreign invaders. And this is the status quo for nearly two hundred years. Then in the 720s BC everything changes.
Assyria changes everthing.
You guys remember we studied the story of Jonah, and how Jonah was sent to Ninevah to tell them to repent or else. Remember how Jonah didn’t want to go? That’s because Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, the biggest threat—at the time—to both Israel and Judah. Assyria was this massive empire that was based out of Mesopotamia, but it wasn’t happy with the land it had. Assyria wanted everything. And that included Israel.
This is where we’re going to pick up. Please open your Bibles to 2 Kings 15:27-31.
27 In the fifty-second year of King Azariah of Judah, Pekah son of Remaliah began to reign over Israel in Samaria; he reigned twenty years. 28 He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin.
29 In the days of King Pekah of Israel, King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried the people captive to Assyria. 30 Then Hoshea son of Elah made a conspiracy against Pekah son of Remaliah, attacked him, and killed him; he reigned in place of him, in the twentieth year of Jotham son of Uzziah. 31 Now the rest of the acts of Pekah, and all that he did, are written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel.
This is around 750 BC. Azariah is king of Judah and Pekah becomes king of Israel—which you’ll see Israel and Samaria used interchangeably here. Samaria is basically the name of that area of land, and we’ll see it continually called Samaria all the way up to New Testament times.
Pekah, the author says, did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and led all of Israel to sin with him.
You guys have noticed there are a lot of bad kings in Israel and Judah in the book of Kings. The author of Kings is trying to explain why all of these bad things are happening, and to the author here believes the reason is clear. The king sinned and therefore God allowed a punishment to be meted out. In this case, the punishment is the King of Assyria basically taking over the outskirts of Israel. The heart of Israel remains intact, but it’s borders have been compromised, and the people who lived there—which it says is the tribe of Naphtali, have been carried off.
This was a common tactic in the ancient world. You wouldn’t let the people who lived in the area you conquered stay there. Instead you would deport them all to another part of your empire and bring in other people to this new part of the empire. This is a way to stop rebellion before it even happens. It’s harder to fight in a new land, a foreign land, that is not your own. You don’t know where you are, you don’t know anyone around you, it’s hard for you to organize and group together. So conquerors would break you up and send you away.
This will be the first of many examples of Israelites being forcibly removed from the Promised Land.
This is like a warning shot across the bow—God warning Israel with more than just words what is coming if they don’t straighten up. And at this point God has used a lot of words. The prophets are full of warnings and predictions that if they don’t straighten up God will allow Assyria to conquer them. Someone flip to Hosea 9:3.
They shall not remain in the land of the Lord;
but Ephraim shall return to Egypt,
and in Assyria they shall eat unclean food.
In the book of Hosea, the prophet Hosea is warning Israel about how its turned from God, and how if Israel keeps on its path, there will be repercussions. This verse particularly points to how Ephraim—which if you’ll remember is one of Joseph’s sons, so one of the ten tribes that dwells in Israel—will not be allowed to remain in the “land of the Lord” which is Israel. It says “Ephraim shall return to Egypt.” This is not literal. Israel is never conquered by Egypt. But what does Egypt represent in the Bible? Slavery. Oppression. Living in a foreign land. They will go back to as they *were* in Egypt. And then it says “in Assyria they shall eat unclean food.” That is, when they go to Assyria, they won’t be able to maintain their Jewish ways, like the kosher laws.
The book of Hosea is unmerciful about relaying the terrible ways in which Israel has gone wrong, not to rub salt in the wound of Israel but so they will turn from their terrible ways. But Israel does not turn. Assyria conquers the borders of Israel, and still Israel does not turn back to God.
And it wasn’t just Hosea that God used to warn them. In 2 Kings it says God used every prophet and seer. Someone please read 2 Kings 17: 13-17.
13 Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the law that I commanded your ancestors and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.” 14 They would not listen but were stubborn, as their ancestors had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. 15 They despised his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their ancestors, and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false; they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them that they should not do as they did. 16 They rejected all the commandments of the Lord their God and made for themselves cast images of two calves; they made a sacred pole,[a]worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Baal. 17 They made their sons and their daughters pass through fire; they used divination and augury; and they sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger.
God uses everyone to warn them to keep the commandments—the most important of which is to not have any other Gods before God. But do they do it? No. They turn their back on God’s covenant. They make idols and worship foreign gods. Generations this problem has been on-going in Israel, that the kings and people are turning their back on God, and despite the warnings they never repent.
And there are consequences for these actions. Because Assyria is growing and wants their land, and God could have protected Israel from Assyria but instead he chooses not to.
Someone please read 2 Kings 17:1-6
17 In the twelfth year of King Ahaz of Judah, Hoshea son of Elah began to reign in Samaria over Israel; he reigned nine years. 2 He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, yet not like the kings of Israel who were before him. 3 King Shalmaneser of Assyria came up against him; Hoshea became his vassal, and paid him tribute. 4 But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea; for he had sent messengers to King So of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year; therefore the king of Assyria confined him and imprisoned him. 5 Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria; for three years he besieged it. 6 In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria. He placed them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.
Now a guy named Hoshea becomes king of Israel—a new king, a new chance to turn back to God. But he does not. The King of Assyria conquers him in a nice way at first—by just making him a vassal of Assyria. That is the Israelites would be allowed to stay where they are as long as they pay tribute to Assyria.
But then the author says that Hoshea tries to form an alliance with Egypt against Assyria and fails to pay its taxes to Assyria. And the King of Assyria? He is not happy about this. He imprisons the king of Israel. But he’s not going ot stop there. Because in ancient times it wasn’t considered enough to just get rid of the king of a land. The people could still rebel against you. So Assyria invades Israel—here called Samaria—and though it takes three years he does indeed conquer it.
And then he takes all the people living in Israel and sends them away.
Now it says all, but remember texts back then tended to be really hyperbolic—they were very over the top about what happened. Records are that *most* people were taken. We even have records from the Assyrians themselves about the tens of thousands of people they removed. But some people would have fled south to Judah—most of the Tribe of Simeon did this--and a few people may have been allowed to remain—perhaps if they swore loyalty to Assyria or some such. But regardless, the result is the same. Israel as a kingdom, as a nation, and as a people group is disbanded.
Ten tribes of Israel gone, just like that. You may hear of the “ten lost tribes of Israel” and that is from this. These people who are forcibly moved out of Israel, they never come back. They remain in the lands of Assyria—and then later we’ll see Assyria is conquered by Babylon. And somewhere in that shuffle of nations, they simply get lost.
Did they die? Probably not. Probably instead, they decided to keep their heads down and assimilate, which is to say to adopt the culture and religion of the people around them.
It sure is easier to blend in then it is to be different sometimes, isn’t it? And I’m sure that was the case for these people. They were disconnected from their home lands, sent to live in new places, probably separated from their families, and it would just be easier to keep their heads down and pretend they’re like everyone else. Especially for their children, who may not ever remember even living in Israel.
This would be a really traumatic event, for Israel and for Judah. Ten of the tribes of Israel, of the chosen people of God, suddenly removed and gone, and now Judah has a large threatening empire at its northern border, looking at Judah with hungry eyes. Because Assyria didn’t just empty the land of Israelites and leave it empty. It sent its own people to live there. Someone please read 2 Kings 17:24.
24 The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in place of the people of Israel; they took possession of Samaria, and settled in its cities.
And this traumatic event?—this isn’t even considered to be “the Exile” with a big E that results in the destruction of the Temple. But it is an exile. And unlike the big E exile, these people never come back.
Modernly there are a lot of groups that claim to be a part of the ten tribes—some in Africa, some in Asia, all over. And some are! There is a Jewish group in Ethiopia that people believe to be descended from the tribe of Dan. But most of the lost tribes are still just that, lost.
Will these tribes ever come back? There are definitely some verses in the Bible that seem to indicate yes. Someone turn to Jeremiah 23:3
3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.
Okay now someone turn to Isaiah 11:11-12.
11 On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia,[a] from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.
12 He will raise a signal for the nations,
and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
from the four corners of the earth.
Both of these verses seem to indicate a time when God will bring back everyone who has been exile and reassemble his people. And perhaps this is literal—perhaps God will bring back all of his chosen people. Or perhaps this is just symbolic of God bringing *all* people back to him. Because certainly if God redeems the entire world in the end, that includes everyone who might be of Jewish descent and not even know it!
There are verses in Revelation that also seem to indicate people from the lost tribes will be found, but I’m not going to pretend I understand what all of Revelation means. That’s a very hard book of the bible to read that is full of metaphorical imagery.
But the key here is that these people—they may be “lost” in the sense that they don’t know their of Jewish descent or they never came back to Israel—but they are not lost to God. God knows every person on this earth. He knows every soul he has created and who they are and where they come from. And through Christianity there is now hope for everyone, whether of Jewish or non-Jewish descent. So it doesn’t matter if secretly maybe you are descended from some lost tribe. Because through Jesus there is now a way for all of us—regardless of race, ethnicity, or origin—to come to God.
Next week we’ll pick up with Judah, and see if they learn anything from what happened to Israel.